When Bella Ristorante opened at 1920 Market Street back in 1995, the Italian eatery was one of the most ambitious locally owned restaurants to venture into the Ballpark Neighborhood. The concept took off -- in fact, Bella opened a southeast outpost (now located at 8770 East Arapahoe Road in Englewood) -- but so did the neighborhood. And after Bella's original home was sold (the building is currently occupied by B-52 Billiards), the restaurant took a year-long hiatus before reopening last year at 1939 Blake Street, in the space previously occupied by Santino's (which is now at 2390 South Downing Street). But the relocated Bella never really caught on, and this summer it said arrivederci.
What happened? Restaurant consultant John Imbergamo, who once counted Bella among his clients, says the big-portion, big-chain guys may have been a factor. "I think that one of the things that changed between the Bella on Market and the Bella on Blake is the proliferation of such places as Maggiano's and Buca di Beppo, the giant-portion Italian-food restaurants," he explains. "When Bella on Market opened, it was really the first of its type on that scale, the first big, big-portion Italian-food restaurant downtown. And in that way, it was unique. It also had that spectacular banquet facility that was really the only one in LoDo, and it was nicer than a sports bar but not all the way to, say, a European Cafe. And so it filled a niche. But things changed. The noodle turned."
Less of a surprise was the closing of another Bolder Concept Restaurant Group eatery, Cucina Leone (763 South University), which started out as one of the town's first gourmet takeout joints, then added an elegant little dining room. Still, the place never could resolve its service problems, and the whole point of to-go is that you're gone in less time than it would take to cook a full meal yourself. BCRG also owns Spanky's Roadhouse (1800 East Evans Avenue), a mainstay in the University of Denver neighborhood, and the Giggling Grizzly (1320 20th Street), which continues to draw crowds despite its mediocre food. Far more upscale is the decade-old Denver Buffalo Company (1109 Lincoln Street), which the group added to its lineup last fall and where it continues to make improvements in both the menu (the place is no longer all-buffalo, all the time) and entertainment offerings.
Open-and-shut cases: No one seems to want to keep Phoenicia Grill (727 Colorado Boulevard) for very long, because the award-winning eatery (it nabbed Best Middle Eastern in the 2000 Best of Denver) has been sold for the third time in four years, this time to Marah and Karam Dawli. The couple has repainted the place and changed the decor a bit, making it brighter and warmer. But one crucial constant remains: chef Mustafa Awada, a culinary-school grad who has a particular talent with herbs.
Menu changes were inevitable when Justin Abrams bought the original (and last remaining) Great Scott's Eatery (1551 Cortez Street in Westminster) from founder Scott Richter, who continues to run two locations of the Colorado Sports Cafe (1345 Cortez Street in Westminster and 8595 Pearl Street in Thornton). Abrams, who confesses that he's only twenty years old, recently expanded the diner-style roster at the 24/7 spot with a full page of new offerings, including such interesting tidbits as fried okra, chicken-fried chicken and a revolving list of homemade soups and cream pies. Fortunately, Abrams kept the killer chicken-fried steak on the Great Scott's menu (this heart-clogging dish is also available at the Sports Cafes).
On a healthier note, Denny Kang, who once ran the sushi bar at Sushi Boat (3460 South Locust Street), recently opened Fujiyama Grill & Sushi in the Denver Tech Center (8101 East Belleview Avenue, Greenwood Village). Fujiyama specializes in creative rolls, including the Amigo Roll, which combines tempura jalapeños with crab and cream cheese, and the Denny Roll, with unagi, crab and avocado wrapped in rice, tempura-fried and served open-faced. Kang also runs the Colorado Sushi Academy out of the restaurant, so folks looking to rock and roll themselves can learn how.
Fins (550 Broadway), the fish market and restaurant, has also has put in a sushi bar. And CityGrille (321 East Colfax Avenue) has added Sunday hours (2 to 9 p.m.). Although only the bar is open, a limited menu, including CityGrille's incredible burgers and gringo green chile, will be offered.
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